The taste of the exotic tropics may be far away, but with some custard apple trees ready for picking, it could be only as far away as the garden.
There are several varieties of the custard apple, such as the cherimoya, but they all come under the umbrella of custard apple here in New Zealand. It’s not difficult to figure out why, with all the pleasant connotations of custard.
Don’t be deceived by the bumpy, rough green skin as it pulls away to reveal soft and creamy white flesh studded with white seeds. A taste is all it takes for the fruit to work its dreamy custardy magic. Some describe it as a fruit salad in one, or a cross between a passionfruit and a pear.
With ancient roots in the Andes and cultivated by the Incans (cherimoya is Quechua for cold seeds), the humble custard apple has travelled far to New Zealand where some 5,000 to 7,000 trees are grown in the North Island.
How, where and when to plant:
Grafted plants are the easiest to grow as seeds need to be hand-pollinated due to a lack of pollen-transferring insects in New Zealand.
Leave it to grow until about 0.9m to 1.2m before transferring it to the orchard (anywhere a lemon tree will grow) ideally in spring.
With luck, it should begin to bear fruit in three to four years depending on the variety (some varieties such as the Pink’s Mammoth take up to seven years).
- In the first year of planting it, prune it back to 80cm just before the leaves fall (around October) and pinch out upright shoots from the strongest shoot, removing large limbs to avoid the tree becoming unbalanced
- In the second year, prune all the limbs of the tree back to 40cm and leave it to grow to 1.5m
- In the third year, prune the limbs that grew last season to 30cm and it should begin to flower in January to February
Fruit should be cut, not pulled from the tree during harvest and there are three periods of harvest depending on the variety.
- Early Harvest (May to June) - Smoothey, Bays and African Pride varieties
- Mid-season harvest (July to mid-August) - Burton’s Favourite, Jete and Spain varieties
- Late Harvest (late August to November) - Burtons, Bronceada, and Reretai varieties
There is no clear indicator of when to harvest but you’re pretty safe when fruit is completely developed, or changed in colour. Do not wait until fruit has softened. For short term storage, things to look out for are when the fruit looks smoother, there’s an aroma release or when the seeds rattle when shaken.
It will not ripen if picked too soon, and cannot be left on the tree to ripen as it will become mealy or discoloured.
How to use:
Allow to ripen to room temperature but do not cut as soon as it is ripe; instead wait a day or two before savouring. It may turn into a brownish colour which does not affect the flesh and should feel as soft as a perfectly ripe avocado.
The custard apple can be eaten straight from the freezer like an ice-cream, pureed or cut into cubes for salads. To appreciate it in its natural form, scoop flesh from the fruit like a watermelon for an enjoyable treat. However, unlike a passionfruit, the seeds aren’t edible!